Family Matters: Inside The Messy Lives Of America’s First Families

Complex family dynamics exist everywhere, including the White House. Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street and the White House, Elizabeth Mitchell’s new book, centers on an early incident of fake news during the Lincoln presidency near the end of the Civil War. It reads like a mystery but is also a story about the sometimes messy lives of First Families. The two colleagues and long-time friends talk about what they’ve learned through research and from first-hand experience.
Darcey Steinke: Lincoln’s Lie is a book about a scandal during the Lincoln administration, but it's also a portrait of a marriage — Abraham Lincoln's marriage to Mary Todd. What did you learn about that union?
Elizabeth Mitchell: Its layered nature. It was at times intellectual, romantic, physical. They shared deep sorrows, including the loss of two sons. He was aware of her mental and emotional instabilities and tried his hardest to be compassionate about those. On the other hand, those instabilities caused him tremendous problems in his professional life. It was interesting to track that negotiation. 
One anecdote that I read about in preparation for this interview really stays with me. The Lincolns had just moved into their first house. Someone reported seeing Mary Todd running out the back door and then Lincoln, holding a gun, running behind her. Once outside Lincoln tapped her behind and they both started laughing. It reminds me of other high-octane couples, Elvis and Priscilla, Sid and Nancy, Kurt and Courtney. I mean on one hand it looks bad, but on the other it’s this goofy volatile couple that is just really in love. 
The connection between them was intimate but a bit destructive, and they knew it. Before Abe married Mary Todd, he went into a pretty severe depression. His friend was so worried about him, he took Lincoln in for months and removed all weaponry to keep him safe. Both Mary Todd and Abe had attachment issues, I would say, so if she did anything to sort of reject him, it put him in a tailspin.
I know that Mary Todd was well educated and that from a young age she was interested in politics. At nine she was so set against Andrew Jackson as a presidential candidate, she refused to see him speak or go to the reception for him. She even got into a fight with one of his supporters on the street. She was interested in the presidency, even as a young girl and often said, the man she was going to marry would be president. I know that you too, as a girl were very interested in the presidency. Can you give us some insight? 
I didn't have any aspirations of being president. I think you’re talking about the Gerald Ford incident [laughs]. In fourth grade our teacher asked us to write to Gerald and Betty Ford because of her breast cancer. He wrote back to me with a little signature card. That inspired me the next year to inexplicably write to him again. That time he sent me back a photograph of him with his dog Liberty. That inspired me at age 12 or 13 to write a rock song about him called “Master of Liberty.” It was my ambition to have my brother's band play it. It came full circle when I was at George [magazine, as the executive editor] and I ran into [my boss] John [Kennedy Jr.] in the hall of the Republican convention when he was on his way to interview Ford. He kept saying I needed to come along to see my childhood hero. The whole time we were talking to Ford, John kept saying, "Hey, she's your pen pal. She wrote a song about you." John was so delighted but it didn’t seem to register with Ford.
See, I think that’s the root of your interest in presidential history.
Maybe. I saw them as humans early on, like any other person on the street but making these wildly big decisions. 
When I read about Mary Todd, I was struck by her similarity to another First Lady, Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Both spoke beautiful French, both were interested in fashion, redesigned the Rose Garden, redecorated the White House, grieved the death of children publicly, tragically sat beside their husbands as they were murdered, and also had blood splattered on them. And both, after their husbands were killed, decamped to Europe for a while. Can you comment on this?
That’s all true and both had intellectual ambitions. Jackie famously won hearts by speaking other languages directly to foreign leaders and having intelligent things to say about larger political issues. Mary Todd tried to advise her husband constantly — you know: "Get rid of this guy in the cabinet." And: "This person is your enemy and you don't realize it." It could have been an aspect of paranoia, part of her mental health issues, but more often than not she was correct.
There is one distinct difference between the women, which is that Jackie Kennedy was so good at keeping herself almost as a performer in the presidency. She didn't reveal all of her emotional life. Something about that dignity and cleanness appealed to the American public. They could handle a First Lady’s sorrow but not necessarily the messiness of sorrow. Now, Mary Todd Lincoln was not like this. Once her husband was killed, she was quite vocal about her grief, her fury that they were kicking her out of the White House, her horror about the level of debt that she was in because of a mania she had for shopping, and that she expected the powerful American people to rally and pay her bills. When they didn't, she started selling off her personal possessions in a very public way, including things as basic as a parasol cover. A lot of people talked about the shame that she brought on the country by doing this. So her fleeing to Europe was probably more of an effort to escape this heavy criticism, whereas Jackie's was, from that famous quote — “they are killing Kennedys” — more about the safety of her children. We should mention Jackie Kennedy was the editor of your first novel. Did she, by any chance ever speak of Mary Todd in your conversations?
Not that I can remember. There was some discussion bout being the First Lady though. I was around 25 years old when she edited me, so I was at the stage of, "I'm never going to do anything in the domestic sphere." She was good, when we were talking, about saying, "Look, I know our situations in life aren’t equal." Like she would always say, "It wasn't like I was chained to the dishwasher." But she would talk about the glories of the domestic life. That I should consider them. 
I like the idea that you had about Jackie being clean. In reading up about Mary Todd, one of the things that really struck me was, when she was selling her clothes, a lot of the journalists would talk about the clothes being dirty, that they had sweat stains or food stains. I thought that was over the guardrail. That's the lowest point of debasement, saying a person is dirty.
Yes, the press liked to present the Lincolns as not presentable enough for the White House. I recently came across an anecdote, when they're arriving in a town on the train trip to the inauguration, they're about to pull into a station and he says, "Do I look okay?" And she stands up on the seat — a banquette basically — parts his hair and combs it. The newspaper reporters have never seen anything more horrifying in their lives. She licked her palm to flatten the hair down. So there was that idea these people were kind of "trash." Once he died, they wanted her out of the White House, almost to begin forgetting it even happened. Misogyny is super powerful and they didn't have any patience for somebody like her who had so much to say. 
Photo: Courtesy of Ceridwen Morris.
Let’s talk more about control. Lincoln was never able to control his wife at a time when husbands did. She was outspoken, vivacious, prone to shopping sprees. There has been speculation that Mary Todd was what we would now call a White House leaker. Leaking is an interesting way to recalibrate power. Do you think she was trying to equalize what she saw as an unfair power balance?
If we look at her first alleged leak, it’s not clear what its motivation was; if it was financially motivated, it would have been her trying to sweep away her problem with shopping, which was a mania. I don’t think she ever wanted to damage her husband. I think she actually would have hated to think of herself as doing that. It was more that since she was surrounded by all of these political people in D.C., some of whom were corrupt and some of whom she felt probably were less intelligent than she was, maybe it was more she wanted power over them or at least to share the power they had. I didn’t see signs of professional jealousy with her husband. She wanted her husband very much to be president, that’s clear. Not necessarily for her own power. She seemed to have a sincere belief in him as a good trustworthy person who was going to do the right thing. She was against slavery obviously. Somebody had to be courageous enough to rise to the presidency and take that stance.
The only power dynamic that I noticed being problematic was their mutual jealousy. In newspaper clippings, you find enough suggestions of him being a bit too attentive to young women, let’s say, and she was so brutally insecure that anything could trigger her. At the time, there were annoying traditions, such as the First Lady wasn’t the one who walked with the president into a room for a dinner or such. Often that someone else would be a younger and perhaps more attractive woman, and Mary Todd always felt terribly about this. And then meanwhile, there were a lot of allegations that she was having affairs on the side. If she wasn’t having affairs, then she might have been doing things to make him jealous, like taking long carriage rides with the guy who was the most flirtatious in D.C. 
Lincoln seemed to have sympathy for his wife’s struggles, her sometimes frail mental health.
I found moments when Lincoln would say something wildly flattering to her to help her gather her fragile confidence before a public event. One of the most moving efforts he made to protect her was when Congress was investigating a leak from the White House of what we now call the annual State of the Union address. All evidence pointed toward Mary Todd. Congress wanted to begin questioning her but it was exactly when their 11-year-old son Willie was on his deathbed with typhoid. Suddenly Lincoln appeared in the Congressional meeting room in a state of absolute sorrow and said, "To my knowledge, no member of my family has engaged in treasonous activity." The people in the room were so struck by his arrival and the sadness etched in his face that they just decided to drop the Mary Todd investigation. Now first of all, it's interesting that he said "to my knowledge," so he’s still leaving the possibility it could be true. But he needed to tell them to back off because his wife’s heavy grief. 
A couple of years later Mary Todd was afraid that her debt would be used to smear her husband and he’d be defeated because of it. You get the full sense of somebody with that kind of mania who can't control it, and just thinking, I'm bringing this person I love down. We've seen that every once in a while — Billy Carter, Roger Clinton.  
Trump definitely doesn't seem to have sadness or worry that his kids aren't doing the right thing. He's just plowing ahead.
I was wondering in regard to the profligate spending of Mary Todd, you worked as an intern in the Reagan White House. Nancy Reagan was a shopper. Did anything odd come up with her and shopping?      
When presents would come in from politicians passed on from their constituents, part of my job was to figure out what to do with them. For instance, the red, white, and blue crocheted potholders would go to this gigantic warehouse. I remember once there were 100 pounds of potatoes from Idaho and the staff thought, Could we use them in the White House kitchen? But they considered, they might be poisoned. So you couldn’t give them to a shelter, either. I remember once we received a hundred of those birds of paradise flowers sent from maybe the Hawaiian congressman or senator. I thought, Well, Nancy would like this. I called up to her office and they deliberated. The hundred flowers were everywhere in my office. And then I got the call back from her chief of staff: "Nancy does not approve of birds of paradise." I always remember that. Because the buds are kind of phallic. Somehow, for me, that story seems to embody the Reagan years. 
One last question: As a historian could you talk about the work of bringing back the complexity and humanity of famous men and also more particularly historical women?
It's interesting how traditionally so much of what we know about First Ladies comes through betrayals by people who worked closely with them. I feel a little bit bad even for Melania that it was a friend who secretly taped her. With Mary Todd Lincoln various people she considered close exposed things about her. Jackie had similar circumstances. Male history traditionally tracks what they did, what they wrote, and females keep getting written up as confidences betrayed.
But one recent development helps us get closer to women’s real roles: newly digitized newspaper archives. Now we get access to more local press coverage of women that wasn’t originally incorporated into the historical canon. Perspective matters as well: History still seems more of a male dominated field. So being a female writer, maybe I can recognize in women the signs of thrashing, of efforts to throw off oppressive power, whereas, I would say a male might look at the woman’s behavior and say, why is she acting so crazy? I can track what ambitions she had and how they were thwarted. And also, what did this woman actually achieve when the historians of the time were looking the other way?

Elizabeth Mitchell is the author of Lincoln’s Lie: A True Civil War Caper Through Fake News, Wall Street, and the White House (Counterpoint/October 2020).
Darcey Steinke’s Flash Count Diary: Menopause and the Vindication of Natural Life came out in paperback in September 2020.

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